PPD might have introduced Wilmington to the world of contract research organizations, but in the decades since a number of smaller companies involved in clinical research have set up shop.
It’s happened so gradually and with such a range of services that not even those who work in the industry locally could list all the players.
“There was so much diversity in this area as far as people in clinical research, but we weren’t always known to each other,” said Julienne Orr, president and CEO of Modoc Research Services, a niche contract research organization, or CRO.
Orr also is one of the leaders of N.C. Coast Clinical Research Initiative, a relatively new push formed last year to coalescence the clinical research companies already in Wilmington while also looking for ways to grow the sector.
That grouping includes CROs such as PPD, AAIPharma Services Corp. and the newly merged Inclinix-PMG Research Holdings helping drug companies work through the various and complicated steps of clinical trials. There also are a number of other local companies that provide clinical trial support services including things like insurance, lab tests and medical writing.
“We have an extremely strong cluster. We’ve got a lot of assets to work on, build on,” Randall Johnson, executive director for the southeastern office of the N.C. Biotechnology Center, said at a recent Cape Fear Economic Development Council forum.
According to the N.C. Biotechnology Center, the Wilmington area is home to a total of 68 companies in the clinical research cluster.
That includes 19 CROs employing more than 2,470 people; 35 clinical research support companies with more than 200 workers; and 14 drug, medical device and testing development companies where more than 90 people are on the payroll.
The initiative’s organizers so far have focused on basic networking as well as education, which can be one of the costliest expenses for those in clinical research.
The group has hosted lunch seminars and webinars put on by the industry’s trade association and has plans to bring in trainers next year for a day-and-a-half session for mandated practice training.
“There’s a need for constant continuing education. The FDA [Food and Drug Administration] takes great pleasure in changing regulations all the time,” Orr said.
She pointed out that Cape Fear Commercial real estate company sponsored the initiative’s first leadership networking event, a sign that other sectors see the benefit of having the cluster grow, from filling more office spaces to creating jobs that often come with higher-than-average salaries.
“With a trial, you can start with a physician and a patient, but you’ll end up with a UPS man. It’s a far-reaching scope of people whose jobs are [tied to] clinical research,” Orr said.
The group also is making a concerted effort to reference Wilmington’s clinical research cluster when talking to outside companies as well as getting the other economic development entities in the area to include the information in their marketing materials.
One thing going for the sector locally is that the University of North Carolina Wilmington offers undergraduate and master’s degrees in its clinical research program as well as statistics training for clinical research.
Another plus is a population mix ranging from college students to retirees who move here from around the country, providing a diverse pool of potential patients to enroll in trials.
But despite the foothold of firms in the area, there’s still plenty of room for clinical trial activity to grow.
New Hanover County is the site for 101 clinical trials, according to research from the N.C. Biotechnology Center. That is lower than some other parts of the state, even in areas with fewer doctors compared to the population.
New Hanover County had 32.17 doctors per 10,000 people in 2010, ranking 6th the state.
In comparison, Guilford County had 24.14 doctors per 10,000 residents but saw 126 clinical trials.
Buncombe County, where Mission Hospital in Asheville focused on clinical trials by forming a research institute in 2000, hosts 163 trials – more than Wilmington. Buncombe had 38.48 doctors per 10,000 residents.
One challenge for New Hanover County is the lack of a teaching hospital where research is a major push, such as in Chapel Hill, Durham and Winston-Salem. And Johnson has heard anecdotally that some area doctors have been hesitant about tackling trials because of perceived business risks.
But Johnson and Orr said they think that could be changing.
“In this area, one thing that is increasing is the desire of wanting to do clinical trials,” Orr said.
Johnson said the overall goal was to build long-term capacity.
“We want to see companies be able to start here, stay here, grow here,” he said. “We want to see lots of employment as one of the sectors that the region is able to host.”
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